Friday, November 11, 2005

Walking a tightrope in Singapore

I am fortunate that not only am I able to make a living from photography, but that I can create the time and space to shoot what I want to. I try to make what I enjoy shooting, i.e. portraits, financially viable and succeed sometimes.

The horror stories of making a living as a photographer in Singapore just keep coming up. Younger photographers, some with real talent, ask me how do they make a photographic career in Singapore? Beyond asking them to be true to their vision of photography, I am at a loss too. Here are the issues with being a photographer in Singapore:

1. There are no real standards and benchmarking in Singapore. Anyone who buys a decent 8 megapixel DSLR can become a professional photographer. There are at least a couple of organisations that have tried to band together professional photographers, but to no avail. It is a dog-eat-dog city and it is not just the young photographers that will undercut you, some of the more established photographers with high overheads will do so too. It is a buyer's market and truly, I think that sometimes it would be less stressful and more financially rewarding to work at MacDonald's. Personally, I am still doing this because I am crazily obsessed with making the images that haunt me in my sleep.

2. We have an immature market. A lot of people paying for photographers treat photography on the same level as cleaning the toilet or running a carpark. Famous hawkers probably get more respect than photographers. To some clients,the photographer pushes the button and the camera does the work. In fact quite a few marketing departments will not hire a professional photographer for simpler events. A marketing person with a digital compact with built in flash will suffice. And do you know what? Sometimes you really DO NOT need a professional photographer. The problem is that the entire photographic industry gets tarred with the same brush. So many people are just interested in sharp, bright pictures, with maybe the people in the pictures smiling. For 'artistic' work it is simple to wack on a few filters in photoshop. Let's not talk about concept, design, emotional impact of vision. We live in a practical society where creativity is only needed to find more ways of making money, not improve the quality of life's experiences or *gasp* photographic images.

3. The last issue is probably the most worrying. Theoretically, photographer's can come together to protect themselves and the country can mature to appreciate the finer things in life. The fact is that Singapore is a small market. People working for magazines in Singapore just do not get paid very well. A lot of magazine work is sponsored in the hope that some high paying advertising work comes along. However, for magazines in the American or European market, the number of magazines sold per issue make our local magazine circulation look like chicken shit. So a two page spread in an American magazine can command a 6 figure US$ price tag. What price can a Singaporean magazine charge its advertisers? How much do you think our locally produced magazines can pay their contributers? Someone pointed out to me that given a 6 figure charge for advertising in a magazine, which advertiser would then go on to use a half-baked advertisement? Our advertisers in Singapore will also spend on advertising what they can earn. And honestly folks, we are a small red dot on the world map.

I think that unless you have to energy to chase peanuts for the rest of your life, you have to think big as a photographer in Singapore. You have to find a strategy to go regional or global, either physically like John Clang, or electronically like some photographers who are selling stock images of Asian themes.

Reality checked...


eadwine said...

sigh...can u hear thousands of us nodding between our thoughts to the stuff u just said.think big....hmm..

LG said...

Some 16 years ago, i had a work colleague who was moonlighting as a professional photograher, doing (no prize for guessing)the wedding circuit.

At that time, I was just starting to play around quite seriously photography. So when I was approached to cover a company event, i was surprised that the moonlighter was not asked. On enquiry, i was told that some found the moonlighter's work as "sharp, bright pictures" but lacking "concept, design, emotional impact of vision". They wanted me to capture the mood of the occassion, and other emotive aspects. I was just learning the basics of photography that time.

The moonlighter went on to give up a stable job to become a full-time photographer- i presume quite successfully- doing weddings and corporate work.

That episode taught me one main lesson about making a living from photography in Singapore :
anyone with a camera can pass off as a pro - whether you are a moonlighter or a beginner hobbyist.